Powers of the court in contempt cases

In December 2018, Judge Salvatore Vasta sentenced a man involved in a property dispute with his former wife to 12 months imprisonment for contempt of court as a result of failing to disclose financial documents on time. The decision of Judge Vasta in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia sparked public outrage and was overruled by the Full Court of the Family Court and described as an “affront to justice” on 15 February 2019.[1]

There had been orders made in August 2018 that the man imprisoned, known by the pseudonym Mr Stradford, make full and frank financial disclosure by 5 November 2018.

Mr Stradford was sentenced by Judge Vasta for contempt of court on 5 December 2018 and spent six days in a maximum-security facility before being released by the court after an appeal was lodged. He was reportedly on suicide watch before being released pending appeal.

Mr Stradford’s wife had told Judge Vasta that she did not want Mr Stradford imprisoned and that she was concerned about how such imprisonment might impact the pair’s two young children. Mr Stradford’s wife later joined in seeking the order for the husband’s imprisonment to be set aside.

Although Mr Stradford’s imprisonment was labelled by the Full Court as a “miscarriage of justice” and appears to have been an anomaly, the case raises questions about the court’s powers to impose such penalties.[2]

Where contempt of court is made out, the Family Court has the same power to punish as is possessed by the High Court.[3] That is, the Family Court may punish the contempt by committal to prison or fine or both where it amounts to a “flagrant challenge to the authority of the Court”.[4]

On appeal, the Full Court could not envisage a case where failure to comply with orders for disclosure could be said to involve a flagrant challenge to the authority of the Court.[5]

The Full Court lamented that Mr Stradford should have been punished for failure to comply with orders under Part XIIIA of the Family Law Act rather than for contempt under Part XIIIB of the Act.[6] Under Part XIIIA of the Act, a sentence of imprisonment could have still been imposed on Mr Stradford but only if the Court was satisfied that the contravention was intentional or fraudulent.[7]

The Full Court allowed Mr Stradford’s appeal and granted him a costs certificate whereby the Attorney-General could authorise a payment to him in respect of the costs he incurred in relation to the appeal.

The case also sheds light on the obligation to provide full and frank disclosure of financial documents in family law property matters. If you are navigating a property settlement with a former partner and would like to know more about the duty to disclose, please contact Rowan Skinner and Associates Lawyers.

[1] Stradford & Stradford [2019] FamCAFC 25.

[2] Stradford & Stradford [2019] FamCAFC 25 at 73.

[3] Family Law Act 1975, section 35.

[4] Family Law Act 1975, section 112AP.

[5] Stradford & Stradford [2019] FamCAFC 25 at 68.

[6] Stradford & Stradford [2019] FamCAFC 25 at 68.

[7] Family Law Act 1975, section 112AD.

Rowan Skinner

About Rowan Skinner

Rowan Skinner is a highly skilled family lawyer with over 35 years of experience across various legal roles and jurisdictions. Rowan specialises in resolving family law disputes such as divorce, financial settlements, child custody and domestic violence cases. Through his diverse and extensive experience, Rowan has a deep understanding of the complexities and nuances involved in family law. Rowan is a skilled negotiator and litigator who follows a compassionate and client-focused approach which prioritises helping you navigate what can be an emotional and challenging time.